THE BOOK OF THE NATIONAL PARKS
ON THE APPRECIATION OF SCENERY
TO the average educated American, scenery is a pleasing hodge-podge of mountains, valleys, plains, lakes, and rivers. To him, the glacier-hollowed valley of Yosemite, the stream-scooped abyss of the Grand Canyon, the volcanic gulf of Crater Lake, the bristling granite core of the Rockies, and the ancient ice-carved shales of Glacier National Park all are onejust scenery, magnificent, incomparable, meaningless. As a people we have been content to wonder, not to know; yet with scenery, as with all else, to know is to begin fully to enjoy. Appreciation measures enjoyment. And this brings me to my proposition, namely, that we shall not really enjoy our possession of the grandest scenery in the world until we realize that scenery is the written page of the History of Creation, and until we learn to read that page.
The national parks of America include areas of the noblest and most diversified scenic sublimity easily accessible in the world; nevertheless it is their chiefest glory that they are among the completest expressions of the earth's history. The American people is waking rapidly to the magnitude of its scenic possession; it has yet to learn to appreciate it.
Nevertheless we love scenery. We are a nation of sightseers. The year before the world war stopped all things, we spent $286,000,000 in going to Europe. That summer Switzerland's receipts from the sale of transportation and board to persons coming from foreign lands to see her scenery was $100,000,000, and more than half, it has been stated apparently with authority, came from America. That same year tourist travel became Canada's fourth largest source of income, exceeding in gross receipts even her fisheries, and the greater part came from the United States; it is a matter of record that seven-tenths of the hotel registrations in the Canadian Rockies were from south of the border. Had we then known, as a nation, that there was just as good scenery of its kind in the United States, and many more kinds, we would have gone to see that; it is a national trait to buy the best. Since then, we have discovered this important fact and are crowding to our national parks.
"Is it true," a woman asked me at the foot of Yosemite Falls, "that this is the highest unbroken waterfall in the world?"
She was the average tourist, met there by chance. I assured her that such was the fact. I called attention to the apparent deliberation of the water's fall, a trick of the senses resulting from failure to realize height and distance.
"To think they are the highest in the world!" she mused.
I told her that the soft fingers of water had carved this valley three thousand feet the into the solid granite, and that ice had polished its walls, and I estimated for her the ages since the Merced River flowed at the level of the cataract's brink.
"I've seen the tallest building in the world," she replied dreamily, "and the longest railroad, and the largest lake, and the highest monument, and the biggest department store, and now I see the highest waterfall. Just think of it!"
If one has illusions concerning the average tourist, let him compare the hundreds who gape at the paint pots and geysers of Yellowstone with the dozens who exult in the sublimated glory of the colorful canyon. Or let him listen to the table-talk of a party returned from Crater Lake. Or let him recall the statistical superlatives which made up his friend's last letter from the Grand Canyon.
I am not condemning wonder, which, in its place, is a legitimate and pleasurable emotion. As a condiment to sharpen and accent an abounding sense of beauty it has real and abiding value.
Love of beauty is practically a universal passion. It is that which lures millions into the fields, valleys, woods, and mountains on every holiday, which crowds our ocean lanes and railroads. The fact the few of these rejoicing millions are aware of their own motive, and that, strangely enough, a few even would be ashamed to make the admission if they became aware of it, has nothing to do with the fact. It's a wise man that knows his own motives. The fact that still fewer, whether aware or not of the reason of their happiness, are capable of making the least expression of it, also has nothing to do with the fact. The tourist woman whom I met at the foot of Yosemite Falls may have felt secretly suffocated by the filmy grandeur of the incomparable spectacle, notwithstanding that she was conscious of no higher emotion than the cheap wonder of a superlative. The Grand Canyon's rim is the stillest crowded place I know. I've stood among a hundred people on a precipice and heard the whir of a bird's wings in the abyss. Probably the majority of those silent gazers were suffering something akin to pain at their inability to give vent to the emotions bursting within them.
I believe that the statement can not be successfully challenged that, as a people, our enjoyment of scenery is almost wholly emotional. Love of beauty spiced by wonder is the equipment for enjoyment of the average intelligent traveller of to-day. Now add to this a more or less equal part of the intellectual pleasure of comprehension and you have the equipment of the average intelligent traveller of to-morrow. To hasten this to-morrow is one of the several objects of this book.
To see in the carved and colorful depths of the Grand Canyon not only the stupendous abyss whose terrible beauty grips the soul, but also to-day's chapter in a thrilling story of creation whose beginning lay untold centuries back in the ages, whose scene covers three hundred thousand square miles of our wonderful southwest, whose actors include the greatest forces of nature, whose tremendous episodes shame the imagination of Doré, and whose logical end invites suggestions before which finite minds shrinkthis is to come into the presence of the great spectacle properly equipped for its enjoyment. But how many who see the Grand Canyon get more out of it than merely the beauty that grips the soul?
So it is throughout the world of scenery. The geologic story written on the cliffs of Crater Lake is more stupendous even than the glory of its indigo bowl. The war of titanic forces described in simple language on the rocks of Glacier National Park is unexcelled in sublimity in the history of mankind. The story of Yellowstone's making multiplies many times the thrill occasioned by its world-famed spectacle. Even the simplest and smallest rock details often tell thrilling incidents of prehistoric times out of which the enlightened imagination reconstructs the romances and the tragedies of earth's earlier days.
How eloquent, for example, was the small, water-worn fragment of dull coal we found on the limestone slope of one of Glacier's mountains! Impossible companionship! The one the product of forest, the the other of submerged depths. Instantly I glimpsed the distant age when thousands of feet above the very spot upon which I stood, but then at sea level, bloomed a Cretaceous forest, whose broken trunks and matted foliage decayed in bogs where they slowly turned to coal; coal which, exposed and disintegrated during intervening ages, has long sinceall but a few small fragments like thiswashed into the headwaters of the Saskatchewan to merge eventually in the muds of Hudson Bay. And then, still dreaming, my mind leaped millions of years still further back to lake bottoms where, ten thousand feet below the spot on which I stood, gathered the pre-Cambrian ooze which later hardened to this very limestone. From ooze a score of thousand feet, a hundred million years, to coal! And both lie here together now in my palm! Filled thus with visions of a perspective beyond human comprehension, with what multiplied intensity of interest I now returned to the noble view from Gable Mountain!
In pleading for a higher understanding of Nature's method and accomplishment as a precedent to study and observation of our national parks, I seek enormously to enrich the enjoyment not only of these supreme examples but of all examples of world making. The same readings which will prepare you to enjoy to the full the message of our national parks will invest your neighborhood hills at home, your creek and river and prairie, your vacation valleys, the landscape through your car window, even your wayside ditch, with living interest. I invite you to a new and fascinating earth, an earth interesting, vital, personal, beloved, because at last known and understood!
It requires no great study to know and understand the earth well enough for such purpose as this. One does not have to dim his eyes with acres of maps, or become a plodding geologist, or learn to distinguish schists from granites, or to classify plants by table, or to call wild geese and marmots by their Latin names. It is true that geography, geology, physiography, mineralogy, botany and zoology must each contribute their share toward the condition of intelligence which will enable you to realize appreciation of Nature's amazing earth, but the share of each is so small that the problem will be solved, not by exhaustive study, but by the selection of essential parts. Two or three popular books which interpret natural science in perspective should pleasurably accomplish your purpose. But once begun, I predict that few will fail to carry certain subjects beyond the mere essentials, while some will enter for life into a land of new delights.
Let us, for illustration, consider for a moment the making of America. The earth, composed of countless aggregations of matter drawn together from the skies, whirled into a globe, settled into a solid mass surrounded by an atmosphere carrying water like a sponge, has reached the stage of development when land and sea have divided the surface between them, and successions of heat and frost, snow, ice, rain, and flood, are busy with their ceaseless carving of the land. Already mountains are wearing down and sea bottoms are building up with their refuse. Sediments carried by the rivers are depositing in strata, which some day will harden into rock.
We are looking now at the close of the era which geologists call Archean, because it is ancient beyond knowledge. A few of its rocks are known, but not well enough for many definite conclusions. All the earth's vast mysterious past is lumped under this title.
The definite history of the earth begins with the close of the dim Archean era. It is the lapse from then till now, a few hundred million years at most out of all infinity, which ever can greatly concern man, for during this time were laid the only rocks whose reading was assisted by the presence of fossils. During this time the continents attained their final shape, the mountains rose, and valleys, plains, and rivers formed and re-formed many times before assuming the passing forms which they now show. During this time also life evolved from its inferred beginnings in the late Archean to the complicated, finely developed, and in man's case highly mentalized and spiritualized organization of To-day.
Surely the geologist's field of labor is replete with interest, inspiration, even romance. But because it has become so saturated with technicality as to become almost a popular bugaboo, let us attempt no special study, but rather cull from its voluminous records those simple facts and perspectives which will reveal to us this greatest of all story books, our old earth, as the volume of enchantment that it really is.
With the passing of the Archean, the earth had not yet settled into the perfectly balanced sphere which Nature destined it to be. In some places the rock was more compactly squeezed than in others, and these denser masses eventually were forced violently into neighbor masses which were not so tightly squeezed. These movements far below the surface shifted the surface balance and became one of many complicated and little known causes impelling the crust here to slowly rise and there to slowly fall. Thus in places sea bottoms lifted above the surface and became land, while lands elsewhere settled and became seas. There are areas which have alternated many times between land and sea; this is why we find limestones which were formed in the sea overlying shales which were formed in fresh water, which in turn overlie sandstones which once were beachesall these now in plateaus thousands of feet above the ocean's level.
Sometimes these mysterious internal forces lifted the surface in long waves. Thus mountain chains and mountain systems were created. Often their summits, worn down by frosts and rains, disclose the core of rock which, ages before, then hot and fluid, had underlain the crust and bent it upward into mountain form. Now, cold and hard, these masses are disclosed as the granite of to-day's landscape, or as other igneous rocks of earth's interior which now cover broad surface areas, mingled with the stratified or water-made rocks which the surface only produces. But this has not always been the fate of the under surface molten rocks, for sometimes they have burst by volcanic vents clear through the crust of earth, where, turned instantly to pumice and lava by release from pressure, they build great surface cones, cover broad plains and fill basins and valleys.
Thus were created the three great divisions of the rocks which form the three great divisions of scenery, the sediments, the granites, and the lavas.
During these changes in the levels of enormous surface areas, the frosts and water have been industriously working down the elevations of the land. Nature forever seeks a level. The snows of winter, melting at midday, sink into the rocks' minutest cracks. Expanded by the frosts, the imprisoned water pries open and chips the surface. The rains of spring and summer wash the chippings and other debris into rivulets, which carry them into mountain torrents, which rush them into rivers, which sweep them into oceans, which deposit them for the upbuilding of the bottoms. Always the level! Thousands of square miles of California were built up from ocean's bottom with sediments chiselled from the mountains of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah, and swept seaward through the Grand Canyon.
These mills grind without rest or pause. The atmosphere gathers the moisture from the sea, the winds roll it in clouds to the land, the mountains catch and chill the clouds, and the resulting rains hurry back to the sea in rivers bearing heavy freights of soil. Spring, summer, autumn, winter, day and night, the mills of Nature labor unceasingly to produce her level. If ever this earth is really finished to Nature's liking, it will be as round and polished as a billiard ball.
Years mean nothing in the computation of the prehistoric past. Who can conceive a thousand centuries, to say nothing of a million years? Yet either is inconsiderable against the total lapse of time even from the Archean's close till now.
And so geologists have devised an easier method of count, measured not by units of time, but by what each phase of progress has accomplished. This measure is set forth in the accompanying table, together with a conjecture concerning the lapse of time in terms of years.
PROGRESS OF CREATION
Chart of the Divisions of Geologic Time, and an Estimate in Years based on the assumption that a hundred million years have elapsed since the close of the Archean Period, together with a condensed table of the Evolution of Life from its Inferred Beginnings in the Archean to the Present Time. Read from the bottom up. Read the footnote upon the opposite page concerning the Estimate of Time.
NOTE EXPLANATORY OF THE ESTIMATE OF GEOLOGIC TIME IN THE TABLE ON THE OPPOSITE PAGE
The general assumption of modern geologists is that a hundred million years have elapsed since the close of the Archean period; at least this is a round number, convenient for thinking and discussion. The recent tendency has been greatly to increase conceptions of geologic time over the highly conservative estimates of a few years ago, and a strong disposition is shown to regard the Algonkian period as one of very great length, extremists even suggesting that it may have equalled all time since. For the purposes of this popular book, then, let us conceive that the earth has existed for a hundred million years since Archean times, and that one-third of this was Algonkian; and let us apportion the two-thirds remaining among succeeding eras in the average of the proportions adopted by Professor Joseph Barrell of Yale University, whose recent speculations upon geologic time have attracted wide attention.
The most illuminating accomplishment of the table, however, is its bird's-eye view of the procession of the evolution of life from the first inference of its existence to its climax of to-day; and, concurrent with this progress, its suggestion of the growth and development of scenic America. It is, in effect, the table of contents of a volume whose thrilling text and stupendous illustration are engraved immortally in the rocks; a volume whose ultimate secrets the scholarship of all time perhaps will never fully decipher, but whose dramatic outlines and many of whose most thrilling incidents are open to all at the expense of a little study at home and a little thoughtful seeing in the places where the facts are pictured in lines so big and graphic that none may miss their meanings.
Man's colossal egotism is rudely shaken before the Procession of the Ages. Aghast, he discovers that the billions of years which have wrought this earth from star dust were not merely God's laborious preparation of a habitation fit for so admirable an occupant; that man, on the contrary, is nothing more or less than the present master tenant of earth, the highest type of hundreds of millions of years of succeeding tenants only because he is the latest in evolution.
Who can safely declare that the day will not come when a new Yellowstone, hurled from reopened volcanoes, shall found itself upon the buried ruin of the present Yellowstone; when the present Sierra shall have disappeared into the Pacific and the deserts of the Great Basin become the gardens of the hemisphere; when a new Rocky Mountain system shall have grown upon the eroded and dissipated granites of the present; when shallow seas shall join anew Hudson Bay with the Gulf of Mexico; when a new and lofty Appalachian Range shall replace the rounded summits of to-day; when a race of beings as superior to man, intellectually and spiritually, as man is superior to the ape, shall endeavor to reconstruct a picture of man from the occasional remnants which floods may wash into view?
Fantastic, you may say. It is fantastic. So far as I know there exists not one fact upon which definite predictions such as these may be based. But also there exists not one fact which warrants specific denial of predictions such as these. And if any inference whatever may be made from earth's history it is the inevitable inference that the period in which man lives is merely one step in an evolution of matter, mind and spirit which looks forward to changes as mighty or mightier than those I have suggested.
With so inspiring an outline, the study to which I invite you can be nothing but pleasurable. Space does not permit the development of the theme in the pages which follow, but the book will have failed if it does not, incidental to its main purposes, entangle the reader in the charm of America's adventurous past.
Last Updated: 30-Oct-2009